Why A CTO Always Needs to Show Sustainability Leadership

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It's time to recognize the CTO as a tech leader and a sustainability champion, capable of leading organizations to a future where technology is the key to ecological resilience and long-term business viability.

Corporations are increasingly pivoting toward more sustainable practices in an era of mounting concerns over climate change and social responsibility.

ESG scores that quantify a company’s performance in Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria have already become a comprehensive indicator for investors and stakeholders to assess the organization’s sustainability and ethical impact, which increasingly influence financial performance and brand reputation.

However, the conversation around sustainability often centers on CEOs and Chief Sustainability Officers (or “Chief Green Officers“), overlooking a pivotal figure — the Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

But recent findings from an Intel survey, which canvassed opinions from 2,020 CTOs, CEOs, and CSOs across 22 global markets (PDF), offer a profound shift in this narrative. 

84% of CEOs and chief sustainability officers agree the CTO has the potential to become the most significant driver of sustainability in an organization.

As the tech industry undergoes rapid transformation, a growing debate is emerging. We are thinking bigger and asking if AI systems are more energy-efficient and sustainable than human labor, and boardrooms are exploring how cloud computing can help their organization go green.

Technology and innovation are right in the eye of the storm, and organizations need a new hero to step up and navigate the organization through unchartered digital waters toward a carbon-neutral future.


Technology Leadership in an Age of Sustainability

The transformation is stark: The role of the CTO has evolved from overseeing technology infrastructures to becoming the potential fulcrum for corporate sustainability. This is far from a voluntary change; it is necessitated by inherent challenges that pit technological advancement against ecological responsibility. 

 76% of senior IT leaders acknowledge the significant difficulty in balancing greener IT with the need for ever-increasing computing performance.

Yet, rather than serving as a stumbling block, this inadequacy signals a call to action—a clarion call, so to speak, for CTOs to spearhead educational initiatives and fill the expertise void.

As we peel back the layers of this complex issue, it’s evident that the notion of technology strategy being distinct from sustainability strategy is becoming obsolete.

A significant 82% of senior IT leaders emphasize that these strategies must converge for an organization to evolve into a sustainable enterprise. Moreover, four in five senior IT leaders express a keen aspiration to be the vanguards of sustainability within their organizations, underlining the shifting ethos in the IT leadership landscape.

Introducing the Sustainable CEO

A Sustainable CTO’s essence lies in making IT operations eco-friendly and leveraging technology to steer the organization toward sustainability.

Amidst growing pressures to achieve tech-zero goals and the complexities introduced by high-computing technologies like AI, CTOs acknowledge their pivotal role in driving sustainability, with 83% aspiring to become Sustainable CTOs.

However, the journey ahead is fraught with challenges that require a multi-faceted strategy. To balance ever-increasing processing demands and reduce emissions, CTOs need to gain broader business support for aligning technology and sustainability objectives.

Key steps toward a ‘tech-positive’ transformation include building sustainability-focused skills, obtaining buy-in from the broader organization, and fostering innovation in software and solutions.

About half of the senior IT leaders consider sustainability training crucial for achieving net-zero goals, emphasizing the need for education within IT and across all organizational functions. Efficient data utilization and optimization of existing technology infrastructure are other significant factors. 

Over 50% of senior IT leaders stress the importance of optimizing existing technology for net-zero success. 

Further, implementing green-accredited cloud services and circular economy practices are identified as critical measures. By harnessing data-driven insights, CTOs can make informed decisions on where to focus resources for sustainable growth, thus fulfilling their evolving role as technology and sustainability strategists.

The Road to Tech Positive

Adding a tactical layer to these aspirational goals, the survey outlines actionable solutions, such as migrating to 100% green clouds. Intel is also attempting to lead the way by establishing a new Sustainable CTO Advisory Board, which brings together leaders from prominent companies such as Cisco, IBM, and Shell. The board meets regularly for collective problem-solving, designed to navigate challenges and opportunities in the journey toward sustainability.

The corporate sustainability landscape is undeniably complex, with impediments and opportunities. Yet, the newfound role of CTOs as potential precursors of sustainability signals a transformative shift, offering a multi-dimensional approach to meeting net-zero targets.

Through technological innovation and a fresh focus on sustainable practices, CTOs are uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of both their organizations and the planet.

Motti Finkelstein, Corporate Vice President and Digital Transformation Officer at Intel, shared with me the concept of “tech positive.” He explained that technology should aim for net-zero emissions and be a force for overall positive change. According to Finkelstein, the goal is to drive business growth and also speed up innovation. He emphasized that no industry wants to remain stagnant; instead, they are all striving for a better, more innovative future with increased capabilities and business opportunities.

Tech Zero is step one. Tech Positive becomes step two with understanding the business and achieving all the new goals with a tech positive.

As we venture deeper into an era marked by unprecedented technological change and ecological fragility, the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) stands at a pivotal intersection.

No longer just the steward of IT infrastructure, today’s CTO is uniquely positioned to be the linchpin for achieving an organization’s net-zero targets. This isn’t merely about “going green” in a conventional sense but a transformative shift towards a “tech-positive” future—a state where technology’s positive environmental impacts outweigh its negatives.

The Bottom Line

Companies have reached a consensus: innovation and sustainability are not mutually exclusive but are, in fact, symbiotic drivers of growth. Achieving net-zero targets while propelling business forward isn’t just a visionary goal; it’s an operational imperative. With a foot in both the technological and strategic realms, the CTO is the natural leader to navigate this complex terrain.

However, it’s not a journey they can undertake alone. CTOs face knowledge gaps in green technologies, the need for substantial financial investments, and the ever-looming challenge of fostering innovation within resource constraints. This is where the C-suite, board members, and external partners must step in to provide the requisite support and resources. In this collaborative environment, the CTO can harness advancements like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint and drive positive environmental change.

The path to a sustainable, net-zero future is fraught with complexities and challenges that transcend traditional business functions and responsibilities. The CTO is emerging as a lynchpin in this journey, orchestrating the harmonization of technology and sustainability strategies. It’s time to recognize the CTO as a tech leader and a sustainability champion, capable of leading organizations to a future where technology is the key to ecological resilience and long-term business viability.


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Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer
Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer

Neil is a freelance tech journalist with 20 years of experience in IT. He’s the host of the popular Tech Talks Daily Podcast, picking up a LinkedIn Top Voice for his influential insights in tech. Apart from Techopedia, his work can be found on INC, TNW, TechHQ, and Cybernews. Neil's favorite things in life range from wandering the tech conference show floors from Arizona to Armenia to enjoying a 5-day digital detox at Glastonbury Festival and supporting Derby County.  He believes technology works best when it brings people together.